The Horrible Histories team can do no wrong. Starting from Terry Deary’s books, through the TV series and on to the stage shows, the unique mix of trivia, silly humour and historical facts is a winning formula that receives almost universal adulation.
So much so that after three separate stage shows about “Barmy Britain” — which have been around for five years in the West End — long-time HH collaborators the Birmingham Stage Company can produce a 70-minute highlights package with just two actors and it is still a brilliant watch.
We start with the Roman invasion of Britain and Boudicca’s rebellion, with a sing-along to We Will Smash You (to the tune of Queen’s We Will Rock You), and the show continues in a similar, high-energy vein for the rest of the hour or so.
There’s a very funny skit about the Magna Carta, with a childlike King John; a brave young audience member dragged on stage to help explain the various demented remedies suggested for the Black Death — he did look scared at the thought it would be whipped out of him — while the Great Fire of London is reimagined as a catastrophe in the Bake Off tent on a par with someone taking your baked alaska out of the fridge.
While the jokes and songs are excellent, it’s really the two stars of the show, Neal Foster (who also co-wrote the show with Terry Deary, and directs) and Alison Fitzjohn that really make it spectacular. Despite having to carry off recounting the whole of British history, their energy means the pace never slackens even during the many costume changes. And the rapport between the two is evident; while Foster tries to make Fitzjohn corpse during King John’s death scene, she’s quick to point out when he does the wrong funny voice in the Black Death sketch.
Kids will love the traditional Horrible Histories jokes about bodily functions and gore, but there is a lot for adults to enjoy too — not least the incongruous sight of a song and dance about the Edinburgh bodysnatchers Burke and Hare to the sound of the Postman Pat theme tune.
There is also a surprising amount of politics — it’s quite clear what Terry Deary and Neal Foster think about Brexit — with a joke about a referendum not being a good way to decide anything as, “you may not get the decision you want”, and Theresa May being portrayed as a bold Boudicca left on her own to sort out others’ mess.
It seems Barmy Britain could run and run…
Horrible Histories: The Best of Barmy Britain is at the Apollo Theatre until 3 September